Aug 18, 2010

Comics For Kids: A Double Standard

So, a couple of weeks back, Robert Kirkman, writer/artist of Invincible, said, in reference to superhero comics being for kids:

"When I was reading comics when I was 15, Superman didn't deal with rape so much, you know? There weren't a lot of dark elements to mainstream superhero comics. I think that it's pretty obvious that one of the things that's hurting comics is that the subject matter is so inappropriate for a mass audience. You know, Marvel just did an intercompany crossover which was supposed to be something all of their readers can read, and it had guys ripping each other in half and intestines were flying all over the place. That's the kind of thing that you would see in a Walking Dead comic. I don't want to see Spider-Man swinging around, tripping in intestines going, 'Aw, crap! What a mess!' That's not the kind of thing that's going to get Billy down the street off of his Xbox. I think part of the problem is that the writers and artists that are doing these books want to write them for themselves, instead of for the audience they should be writing to. And I think that's a real problem. [...] I think it's cool to see superheroes rip people in half. Because if superheroes really had superpowers, that's the kind of shit that would happen, just on accident, you know? And so I created a book called Invincible that isn't meant for a younger audience, and has superheroes ripping each other in half. But I didn't try to take Superman and turn it into that book. I did my own book. I think that's the key."

To which Tom Brevoort, Marvel's VP and Executive Editor, responded with:

"I see Robert Kirkman has joined the Erik Larsen 'Do as I say, not as I do' club when it comes to the content in mainstream super hero comics. Guys, you've got all the freedom in the world to do whatever kinds of comics you want, and so do we. It's unapologetically ironic that the guy publishing INVINCIBLE, probably the bloodiest, goriest super hero comics in years, is the one casting these stones. And yes, I know he tries to contextualize it, but it's still 'Do as I say, not as I do.' If you want those kinds of comics, MAKE THEM! I think it's absurdly hypocritical to publish a violent book that looks like an issue of Teen Titans on the racks, then take this stance. And just to be clear: I like both Robert's and Erik's work. Never miss an issue of WALKING DEAD or INVINCIBLE."

So who's right? Who's wrong? Well, quite frankly? I think they're both wrong. But I also think Kirkman is right. Now hear me out.

I don't think hyperviolence - be it its excess or toning it down - is going to do anything to get kids into comics or not. Kids see much, much worse things in their video games, or their friends' video games, and they'll see much worse on cable. I mean, yeah, I could do without Spider-Man using his sticking power on human flesh and removing a layer of skin, as he did in a recent issue, but that's got more to do with that being out of character for Spider-Man than it being inappropriate for kids. If, say, Wolverine is shown spilling blood, what's the harm? It's perfectly in keeping with his character. So I don't think there's anything objectionable in this type of violence - these days, kids see it sooner rather than later. What I call into question, as it regards violence, is the sheer gratuity. Showing intestines being eaten isn't really all that artistic, and it's a really, really cheap way to get the reader's attention. So on that end, I think the creators should try harder, but if you don't want them to see the gore, you better keep them away from PSPs and Wiis too.

Gory? Yes, to old men like us. To kids? This is lite in comparison to their video games.

But there are other issues that I would certainly argue aren't all that suitable for children. Chief among these is the sex, and on this judgment call, I certainly, absolutely am influenced by the fact that I am an uncle, and I have a nephew and a niece for whom I am not responsible when it comes to giving them "talks" about "life stuff," and I also want them to have role models and enjoy a sense of wonder as they grow up.

This makes the subject of sex a really tricky issue. I would not give either of these kids the Sandman books (they're too young for it anyway), but I really want them to enjoy, say, the Justice League, ike I enjoyed the Justice League. So I really don't want to have to give a Justice League comic I see these days, like, for example Identity Crisis, and have my nephew ask me what the hell Dr. Light did to Sue Dibny. The boy is smart enough to know when I'm dodging a question, and it's not really my place to answer that question, capische?

Seriously, what does something like this add?
It's just a short-term surprise, that's all.

Now, if you were to do a story like this in, say, The Authority, that's perfectly all right, as the audience for that comic is not only decidedly more adult, but decidedly adult, period.

My other issue has to do with having admirable characters. Look, folks, I'm sorry, but there is a damn double standard here, and it should as hell be in place. Note, for example, when Alan Moore took Marvelman and made the stories more adult, infusing sex and a whole lot of gore and more intellectual themes, and making Kid Marvelman a villain.

 That's okay, and it's okay for two reasons: (1) No one but old people were going to be reading Marvelman anyway, and (2) It was the 80s, and the concept of the adult superhero was still fairly new, and thus there weren't all that many characters to choose from. In this day and age, with so many characters to possibly choose from, I really, really don't see the point of corrupting Mary Marvel (and putting her in an overly sexualized suit):

Original Mary Marvel: Such a fun-loving, honest-to-goodness superhero!

Evil Mary Marvel: Because for some reason, people think this is better!

And that's even after Jeff Smith's Shazam! and the Monster Society of Evil came out.

Like I've said in my review, my niece absolutely fell in love with the character of Mary Marvel, and I don't want to have to say, "Oh well, see, in this 'real' universe, she turned bad! And she chose to be that way, too!" As it is, any momentum that the Shazam characters could have due to Jeff Smith's excellent work was completely muted by the developments that DC put the whole family through, all for the sake of "pushing the envelope." How about we quit trying to push envelopes and just tell good stories?

The obvious point I'm getting at here is that, yes, absolutely, there is and should be a double standard. There's stuff that "fringe" comics can do that the "main" comics simply shouldn't. I don't think any new young reader is going to pick up Secret Six off the shelves - the covers wouldn't appeal to them - so you can do much edgier, more sexual stuff in that book. But the icons - I'm talking Superman, Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Justice League, the Avengers (we can debate the degrees of kid-friendliness for each icon later) - at the very least should be written in such a manner as they were written in the 70s and 80s. Layered, in such a way that new and young readers can enjoy them just as much as an old and experienced reader. And don't tell me it can't be done - the DC Animated Universe did it all the time. Heck, Gargoyles did it all the time. Brave and the Bold does it right now! As a general rule, as far as I'm concerned, if you're not going to show it on Saturday morning, don't put it in! You can have intelligent and enjoyable stories even without all the explicit sex and moral lapses in judgment. Both things have their place, but the iconic superhero is supposed to reflect the best of us, and I'd like the stories to show that. Something like Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's Astro City is a perfect example: nothing in excess, just really good storytelling.

Astro City: Comics for the whole family!

Of course, if you're the type who just really thinks it's important to see Gwen Stacy's arching neck while Norman Osborn has consensual sex with her, because somehow telling a story like that is just so gosh-darned important, then I'll just have to agree to disagree with you.

Seriously? Really? Image from Comics101.


The Professor said...

That Dr. Light and Sue Dibny page is in a word ... awful.

Asterios Polyp is a great book. Jeff Smith's treatment of the Marvel Family was a great read. Should it be so hard to understand that these are really different comics and that either approach wouldn't work well for the other?

This desire to make every comic "mature" has lead to a lot of stuff that is at best unpleasant to read.

Duy Tano said...

I actually have a larger objection to the Gwen Stacy/Norman Osborn page, because, seriously, what the hell? Consensual sex with your boyfriend's worst enemy, who's also his best friend's dad? Really?

I have nothing against "mature" comics; some of comics' best stuff is "mature." What I don't get is why everything should be "mature," and I don't get why people can't get that using the main characters for these "mature" stories isn't a good idea. Darken Ghost Rider! He's already dark! There's not much darker you can go with him! But darkening Spider-Man? Really? Way to get new readers.

Allysons Attic said...

I like mature comics, when it is a good story.

Not just for the shake of shocking.

Mary Marvel humping people is "for the shake of shocking" and didn't help the story progress at all.

The Dr Light thing, I think helped the story progress because it was so awful to happen to such a loved character/couple and made you hate Dr Light and agree with the taking of his memories, and then taking Batman's memories.

I have young children and I wouldn't want them to read either of the stories, until they are much older.

For me Sex is a biggest problem then violence, because kids understand violence.
They deal with violence in a minor way all the time.
"Mommy Mommy, he hit me."
"But he stuck his foot in my face."
"But he farted in my face."

BUT sex is something that they don't understand quite what it is.

I personally wish that they would have a Rating on comics, just like they do games and movies, so that you know what to expect.

Duy Tano said...

I absolutely get the intent with Identity Crisis, but it's a story that could have been told in a more appropriate setting with more appropriate characters. Doing it with the Justice League is just another way to get the mainstream audience to be all "Hey look, comics aren't for kids anymore," even though they haven't been for the last 25 years. Just like with Sins Past, I don't think it had to be rape. Putting loved ones in danger was enough.

Additionally, Identity Crisis was such a big and pivotal story for the direction the DCU was going in - even if the kids could read what came afterward, they'd be curious about Identity Crisis.

It didn't have to be that, is all I'm saying.

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